Frei Otto, 2015 Pritzker Laureate

The Tensile Man (1925-2015)

German Architect Frei Otto, 2015 Pritzker Laureate, white man with white hair
German Architect Frei Otto, 2015 Pritzker Laureate. Photo ©2015 The Pritzker Architecture Prize / The Hyatt Foundation (cropped)

Frei Otto's childhood interest in glider airplanes became more than a hobby. His real interest was a lifelong exploration of building with lightweight, tent-like materials that could withstand the extreme forces of nature. He may not have invented building with fabrics, but Otto surely commercialized what has come to be known as tensile membrane architecture.

Background:

Born: May 31, 1925, Siegmar, Germany

Died: March 9, 2015, Warmbronn, Germany

Military Service:

  • 1943-1944: German military pilot training
  • 1945-1947: Prisoner of War, Chartres, France. As the camp's architect, he learned to build using scarce materials.

Education:

  • 1948: Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin), Germany
  • 1950: Exploration of United States architecture, including studying urban development at The University of Virginia, Charlottesville
  • 1954: Doctorate of Civil Engineering, TU Berlin

Otto's list of influences in the US, from his 1950 excursion, reads like a "Who's Who" of famous architects:

Professional Experience:

  • 1952: Founded his own architecture firm in Berlin, Germany
  • 1954: Began long-term collaboration with tent-maker Peter Stromeyer of L. Stromeyer & Co
  • 1958: Founded Institute for Development of Lightweight Construction
  • 1964: Director of the Institute for Lightweight Structures (IL), the University of Stuttgart
  • 1964-1991: Professor at the University of Stuttgart
  • 1969: Founded Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn, studio near Stuttgart, Germany

Selected Building Projects:

  • 1955: Gained national attention for three lightweight, tent-like structures created with Peter Stromeyer for Germany's Federal Garden Exhibition, Kassel, Germany
  • 1967: German Pavilion, Expo '67, Montreal, Canada
  • 1972: Munich Olympic Stadium, tensile roofing throughout Olympic Park
  • 1974: Mannheim Multihalle, Mannheim, Germany
  • 1975-1980: Collaborated with Rolf Gutbrod and Ted Happold on tent-like gymnasium, King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  • 2000: With Pritzker Laureate Shigeru Ban, co-designed the Japanese pavilion at the 2000 Hannover Expo

Writings by Frei Otto:

  • The Suspended Roof, Form and Structure, Dissertation, 1954
  • Tensile Structures: Design, Structure and Calculation of Buildings of Cables, Nets and Membranes, Volume I (1962) and Volume II (1966)
  • Biology and Building, 1972

Honors and Awards:

  • 1968: Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, FAIA
  • 2004: Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)
  • 2015: Pritzker Architecture Prize

The Pritzker Jury Explains the Importance of Frei Otto:

  • "He practiced and advanced ideas of sustainability, even before the word was coined. He was inspired by natural phenomena – from birds' skulls to soap bubbles and spiders’ webs."
  • "He has embraced a definition of architect to include researcher, inventor, form-finder, engineer, builder, teacher, collaborator, environmentalist, humanist, and creator of memorable buildings and spaces."
  • "The lessons of his pioneering work in the field of lightweight structures that are adaptable, changeable and carefully use limited resources are as relevant today as when they were first proposed over 60 years ago. "

What Others Say About Otto:

"Architecture is not a short-term proposition; it must remain relevant over time. This year’s recipient has spent his lifetime researching, experimenting, and developing a most beautiful architecture that is timeless. It embodies the purity of lightweight shelter with structures that are economical, simple and are supremely beautiful. "Glenn Murcutt
"...his was an architecture inspired by lightness....For me, he reinforced the point that architecture is a fundamentally collaborative exercise."Sir Norman Foster
" ...where others saw mass as the solution, he offered lightness. Like the ancients and others that came before him, he questioned the origins of our assumptions by going back to nature and figuring it out for himself."Frank Gehry
"Frei Otto is one of the great architects and engineers of the 20th Century and his work has inspired and influenced modern architecture, as we all learn to do more with less, and to trade monumental structures for economy, light and air.
"Richard Rogers

Learn More:

Sources: Biography and Jury Citation and Tributes to Frei Otto, The Hyatt Foundation at PritzkerPrize.com; "Collaboration of Frei Otto and Peter Stromeyer" by Mark Zeh, Fabric Architecture Magazine, July 2012 at fabricarchitecturemag.com/articles/0712_f3_otto_stromeyer.html [accessed March 11, 2015]